Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Here’s how my client Robert described his marriage.
”My wife Mary Ann and I kind of hunkered down after she received her diagnosis. Her energy level isn’t what it used to be. Some days she doesn’t feel good, and that affects her mood. So we pretty much spend evenings and weekends with each other. We relax and watch TV. Or do things with our teens if they are around. Our friends have kind of fallen by the wayside, and we only see family members on major holidays.”
Robert talked to me about how they had become closer after she was diagnosed, and how they were teaming up to manage her chronic condition and support each other. Robert felt good about the progress they had made as a couple. But he also expressed a concern:
“Sometimes I feel like we are kind of isolated. It’s not that we don’t enjoy each other’s company. But we think so much alike that sometimes we both start worrying about something that later turns out to not be such a big deal. Those are times when having someone to bounce things of off would probably help.”
I often have discussions like this with couples who are living with a chronic condition. It’s easy to become isolated. You may not feel up to having people over, or going out. You may not want to explain that you have limitations in what you can do, or what you can eat. It may be uncomfortable to be asked questions, or annoying when someone tries to advise or micromanage you.
However, as Robert said, it’s also helpful to have someone to talk to who can listen, help you to maintain your perspective, maybe even make suggestions if you ask them to. Outside input from people you respect and who care about you can be like a breath of fresh air. As well as a way to keep you connected with the outside world.
Expanding your social circle
Do you and your partner feel like you are isolating yourselves? Here’s how to open up:
Make a list. Are there some old friends whose company you have enjoyed in the past and who you would enjoy reconnecting with? Or some family members that you’d like to see before the next holiday? What about coworkers or neighbors who you would like to get to know better? Make a list of people you would like to bring back into your life.
Reach out. Make a phone call or send an email. Let the other person know that you have been thinking about them and would love to be back in touch. If you feel so inclined, briefly explain that you have missed their company, but have had a lot going on, and that you’re looking forward to catching up on what’s been happening in their life. If it’s a new person, let them know you’d like to get to know them better. In other words, be the one to open the door to further communication.
Invite. When you’re trying to reestablish a relationship, or start a new one, it is up to you to get the ball rolling. Think of something you could all do together. Like coffee and a snack at your place, or a picnic. Keep in mind that people are busy, so it may take a couple of invitations before you manage to get everybody together. Or you may have to reach out to a few different people before you get someone to commit. A little risky, I know. But you have nothing to lose. And both you and the person you are reaching out to have everything to gain. Who doesn’t need more supportive people in their life? So don’t get discouraged if it takes some time and patience.
Commit to a date. It’s easy to get busy and leave it at, “Let’s get in touch sometime.” Be the one to back up “sometime” with a specific date. “How about a week from Friday?” “Sounds good to me!” If it doesn’t sound good to whomever you’re reached out to, suggest a couple of alternative dates. Follow up if they don’t.
When you meet, keep it light. You and your partner have had enough heavy conversations lately. As you reconnect or make new connections, focus on everybody getting to know each other better. The idea here is to have some fun, and to let some fresh air into your relationship. See where it builds from there. Not everybody will be able to share at a deep level with you. But either way, it’s always good to share a few laughs.
Remember: you’re in control of the message. My clients have told me that one of the reasons they don’t socialize much is because they don’t want to have to talk about their chronic condition, to have to answer questions they don’t want to answer, or to be made to feel like they are needy or a victim. I assure them that they don’t have to talk about anything that makes them uncomfortable. A simple, “I’m coping pretty well” and gently changing the subject can be enough to move the conversation in another direction. On the other hand, people who care want to be supportive. So as you feel ready, self-disclosure can open the door to a deeper relationship.
Sure, you and your partner are a great team. But “you and me against the world,” as beautiful as it sounds, doesn’t work so well in reality. Share your lives with other people. Open up to a fresh perspective. And while you’re at it, give others the benefit of your point of view. We are all in this together.
What helps you and your companion avoid feeling isolated? Help others in our community by adding a comment below to share your advice.